Could the search for cheaper garbage-hauling options jeopardize a Portsmouth plant?

Posted at 6:39 PM, Oct 26, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-26 18:39:35-04

Virginia Beach, Va. - A search for cheaper garbage-hauling options could jeopardize a Portsmouth plant that turns trash into energy, and also threaten the shipyard next door, according to a retired admiral’s letter to the Virginia Beach mayor.

John Harvey Jr., who is now Virginia's Secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs, wrote that the Norfolk Naval Shipyard depends on steam generated by the Wheelabrator Technologies plant in Portsmouth. That plant, in turn, depends on trash deliveries from the Southeastern Public Services Authority, the regional trash agency.

Wheelabrator plant manager Rob Johnson said about half of the trash the factory burns to make steam and electricity comes from SPSA. According to Harvey’s letter to Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms, SPSA is considering diverting that trash to landfills instead of to the energy plant, because it is cheaper.

The letter was included in Virginia Beach city manager James Spore’s weekly informational package to his city council. Johnson said Virginia Beach accounts for about a third of SPSA’s trash.

Harvey wrote that the plant sends “mission-essential steam” to the shipyard next door, and that ending the program “is the wrong message to send” to the 9,000 civilian workers there. Harvey also wrote that any decision that harms the plant could focus unwanted attention on the shipyard in a future round of base closures or consolidations by making it more costly for the yard to gain steam for heating.

Johnson said it also sends the wrong message about the value of the environment and the local economy.

“It would be a shame to see it all go away over price alone when there are so many benefits,” he said. “Whether it is the environmental, the economic side, and also the support of the Navy.”

Johnson said his company bought the plant from SPSA in 2010 for $150 million and has invested millions more to improve it. The plant employs 145 workers.

SPSA’s agreements with the cities runs through 2018. In the past, city leaders in Hampton Roads have discussed the cost benefits or using only landfills, or withdrawing from the regional waste agreement entirely.